Book Review: No Self, No Problem

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No Self, No Problem is a new (2019) book by Dr Chris Niebauer, a cognitive neuropsychologist from the USA who specialises in analysing the hemispherical differences between the left and right sides of our brains and how they process input from our senses.

The book looks at Buddhist teachings regarding the western concept of the ‘self’ and postulates that they are correct based upon science’s inability to locate our sense of self in the brain. Buddhism has been teaching these concepts for thousands of years, and it seems that our science is only just beginning to see how right they are.

What does this mean?

In a nutshell, it means that the ego, the ‘me’ that we in the western world consider as the pilot of our bodies, and who we refer to when we talk about ourselves to others, fundamentally doesn’t physically exist in our brains. In the book, Niebauer carefully walks us through cases and cites evidence from numerous tests dating all the way back to early split-brain patients who had invasive brain surgery in the 1960s to help reduce epileptic seizures. Some of the results of these tests were bizarre, and fascinating, and well worth reading about if you have the time.[1] [2]

It may sound strange, but consider this: When we are trying to decide what to order from a menu and ask ourselves “what do I want?” in our mind, who are we talking to?

How does this help us?

The author argues that human belief in the self perpetuates our mental suffering, and we should mindfully re-frame our thoughts with this new concept, to provide ourselves with a happier life. The book goes in-depth into the role the left hemisphere of our brain plays in making assumptions about our environments when we don’t have all the facts: a useful survival trait. Unfortunately it is also one of the main reasons we suffer so much. Just think about the last time you thought someone had snubbed you in the corridor because they didn’t say ‘Good morning’ and how that made you feel for the rest of the day. Why do we assume the worst? Perhaps they were merely busy or didn’t see us.

If you’re looking for a light read on your commute to work, this certainly isn’t a good choice and you’ll quickly find yourself sinking into this wordy-but-accessible volume. It’s written in high-school level vocabulary, but the concepts are rather involved. If you have some time and you’re willing to get stuck into re-reading some paragraphs to fully absorb the information the author is imparting, then climb aboard. My personal favourite part of the book covers our preoccupation with ‘thinking about thinking’, and reminds us that humans process much sensory information every day and place it into different categories. As the author says:

“To think is to think categorically, and there is no way around this.” – Dr. Chris Niebauer

Niebauer points out that categorisation allows us to see patterns, and groups of patterns become our held system of beliefs. Since many of these contain assumptions, any incorrect information could lead to our suffering, especially if the ego concept is threatened in some way. Were we to rid ourselves of the concept completely, when someone decided to attack us verbally, it would merely wash over us because we would consider it to be anger without a directed target to wound.

Opinion: My opinion is that categorisation facilitates both good and bad thinking. For example: It may cause a person to place someone into a category that allows them to be racist, which is obviously a negative trait. However, it also allows us the positive trait of creativity. If we couple our ability to judge and categorise what we see with the left-brain’s ability to fill in the gaps, we can use what we know to ‘make stuff up’. That could lead us to generate new works of art and sublime musical compositions. As ever, there always seems to be a trade-off between the yin and the yang, the light and the dark, and one quite possibly couldn’t exist without the other, from a neurological point of view, and quite possibly a philosophical one as well.

The book also covers:

My recommendation

I highly recommend this book. It has helped me personally to catch thoughts that are negative assumptions before they escalate. I now remind myself that without all the facts in my possession my interpretation of a situation is a negative assessment designed to prepare me should the worst happen. Although the book is too complex for most, I believe the concepts written in No Self, No Problem should be taught to children in schools to help children learn coping mechanisms for our increasingly hectic daily lives.

Lastly, when you consider buying a book, please think about the trees used to make the paper. If you have a Kindle, please consider buying an electronic copy instead. They’re often usually cheaper too.

Buy the book from Amazon here.


1: The Split Brain in Man, by Michael S. Gazzaniga, 1967 2: Consciousness, personal identity and the divided brain, by Roger Sperry, 1984

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